[For discussion of what can make a many-to-many website exemplary, click here
1. Websites are human and social systems, not technology projects.
2. Neither lawyers nor programmers should be in charge.
3. You should get it right the first time.
4. “No” is not a design parameter.
5. Legacy systems pose special problems.
6. Users are the only proper testers and judges.
P.S. Why I’m Not Slavering over Twitter’s IPO
Coda: an exemplary many-to-many online community
If you think the embarrassing debut of “healthcare.gov” is unique, think again. It may have been an extreme example. And it’s certainly recent. But lesser and nearly equal website debacles abound, in business as well as government.
A good example is Facebook. Its website is a cluttered, disorganized mess, to the point of randomness. “Chaotic” might be a better word. Its policies and consumer choices—especially for privacy—are obscure, overly complex, unclear, confusingly presented, hard to change, and (in the eyes of many) inadequate.
Even today, Facebook is nothing more than a social-media concept waiting for successful implementation by more competent firms like Google. It’s a minor miracle that its stock is now trading above its IPO price, and at a P/E ratio over 189 (at day end October 28). (At least Amazon’s P/E of 1,268 and Google’s of nearly 258 suggests that the investing public has some residual ability to distinguish good from bad Websites).
What is my basis for judging? I’ve worked with (and sometimes programmed) computers for 52 years. Doing that has always been a sideline for me—an avocation. But it’s always been there.
I started with machine-language programming of a long-forgotten Bendix G-15 computer at a summer science camp in 1961. I bought my first personal computer in 1986. I used it, in part, to program some simple things like stock charts, long before there was a World Wide Web. Ever since Bill Clinton and Al Gore released the Internet for commercial use in 1996, I’ve spent from one to several hours per day surfing it and using it. As a practicing lawyer, I spent eight years doing mostly software licensing for some of the top companies in Silicon Valley, including household names like Apple and Hewlett-Packard. I drafted some of the first licensing agreements for artificial intelligence and “expert systems.”
So I know what computers and software can and cannot do, and how bad management can exacerbate their problems and good management propel their potential. And, as faithful readers of this blog know, I do not flinch from criticism and tend toward perfectionism.
If Facebook actually had to do anything real—let alone with your money—it would go bust in a single quarter. But when all it does is transmit cute photos, water-cooler chat and random gossip, its quality doesn’t much matter. It’s a bit like the talking dog: it needn’t talk well
, just talk at all. In an era of perceptible American decline, being the first widely used social medium was enough.
Some government websites do much better, and with things that really matter.
Take a look, for example, at socialsecurity.gov, eia.gov, or cdc.gov. These websites, respectively, competently report (and partly manage) the world’s largest single pension program, America’s energy industry and infrastructure, and the worlds single best (if not only) comprehensive and up-to-date compendium of medical, health, and epidemiological information.
There are also a number of business websites that I use weekly, if not daily, without complaint. But there are only three commercial ones that I really admire: google.com, amazon.com, and ameritrade.com (the online stock broker).
So good (or bad) websites don’t depend on whether government or business runs them. They depend on whether whoever is responsible for them knows what websites really are.
With that in mind, I proposed the following five principles. If followed, they might help save healthcare.gov and make the Web the universal human organizer that it still can be.
1. Websites are human and social systems, not technology projects.
Websites are means by which people exchange information, interact, and trade in large numbers. Even the commercial ones are technologically assisted social communities. Business managers dimly recognize this truth today when they speak of “communities” of customers and treat brands the way nations once treated flags.
A website is no more servers and software than a subway is wheels and tracks, an airline is baggage conveyors, or a city is water and sewage pipes.
The “tech” in websites is a means—really only part of
the means. The end and the essence are social and human.
When you set up a website, you are establishing a community of people with common interests in something
. The something may be only a tiny part of their lives, such as a transient purchase of a single product. (Even then, there is always the hope of a repeat purchase.) It might be a larger part, such as the e-mail and social communities that Google and Yahoo and later Facebook set up. It might be a universal department store like Amazon.com, with a satellite community of reviewers who trust each other and Amazon because they can post negative reviews
. It might be a news community, like that of Bloomber.com. Or it might, like healthcare.gov, be a community of people who rely on it literally for life and death.
But in every case, when you work on a Website you are working on a social and human project, not a technological one. This point is paramount. If you get it wrong, nothing else will go right. And sometimes, if you get it wrong at the outset, you can never recover (see Point 3
below). You might as well pull the plug and start over, putting someone in charge who understands what websites are.
2. Neither lawyers nor programmers should be in charge.
Don’t put a lawyer or programmer in charge of building a website. You would do much more good—for yourself, your firm or agency, and for society—by donating the project money to a good charity.
Why is this so? Because neither lawyers nor programmers are big-picture people. Their entire training is in detail. You don’t start a community with details. You start it with a goal and a vision.
The details come later, sometimes much later. And if the website is to work well, they must be and remain subordinate to the goal and vision—far
It doesn’t much matter how smart the lawyer or programmer is, or how good his or her reputation. The training and mindset are wrong. If you look hard enough and are lucky enough, you might find a lawyer or programmer with a big-picture mindset and a steep enough learning curve to succeed. But in general, you might as well look for an open-minded jihadi. Good luck with that!
Websites have a painful and dirty little secret. If you’re the boss, their big-picture design, and a large part of the process
of their development, is up to you. They are not projects to delegate. They move too fast. And they can go off the rails in a moment, especially in their early stages.
Too many bosses delegate this work. That, sadly, seems to have been the President’s and Secretary Sebelius’ primary mistake.
The irony is that the President cut his teeth in politics on community organizing. His right-wing opponents are whistling past their graveyard
when they ridicule that background. For the communities—including online communities!—that this President has organized may soon relegate the Old South and its Tea Party
to the dustbin of history, creating a New South and a new nation.
But with healcare.gov, the President apparently failed to understand that he was creating a human community, not ordering a new air conditioning system for the White House.
True, it was and is in part a commercial community, a market. But who would build a marketplace where doormen bar the way to anyone who hasn’t filled out a blizzard of forms? What market proprietor turns browsers and window shoppers away? And who ever
hides prices? Certainly not the owners of gas stations all over America, who advertise their prices, to the tenth of a cent, on huge signs, lit up at night and visible from the highway?
I know, I know. Health insurance is complicated. I’ve written about that myself
. And you can’t give an accurate price quote without knowing a bunch of things about the person seeking insurance. But how about giving some price examples
, with key information and a disclaimer for each, inviting the website user to sign up and submit personal data to get a more accurate quote?
Isn’t that the kind of thing that department stores and newspaper advertisements have been doing for over a century: getting people interested enough with general
or (“as low as”) price quotes to come into the store? What’s wrong with window-shopping for health insurance?
I would bet heavily that a lawyer or programmer was responsible in some measure for these flaws. But the President and the Secretary were in charge. These gross failures to advance their vision were not failures of legal or technical competence, but of executive vision or attention. And they will only get fixed with high-level, “hands on” executive involvement.
3. You should get it right the first time.
Nowhere in modern business or government is the apothegm “Do it right the first time” more apt than with websites. With them, there is no substitute for strong executive vision and supervision from the very beginning.
Doing it right the first time is infinitely cheaper, simpler and easier than having to backtrack. And as healthcare.gov may be in the process of proving, backtracking may lose much of your community.
Law and software are both complex. So when you build a website that depends on them wrongly, every change needed to make it right will turn out to be more complex and expensive than you thought beforehand. Every change will involve numerous details and time-consuming investigation, first to find out how the wrong vision was implemented in detail, and second, to correct it.
But even that’s not all. Law and software are much like ecology. They are complex systems. Everything in them relates to and affects everything else. So when you change one detail to bring the vision into focus, the change can affect numerous other details, which also much be changed.
To be sure, both law and computer programs are modular. There are separate statutes and separate programming modules. But when a basic vision goes awry, its unintended consequences will appear in numerous unanticipated ways: how those statutes are handled (or legally circumvented) and those programming modules are designed and interfaced. So when you change something, even for the better (in terms of vision), you will encounter numerous unanticipated problems.
More likely than not, you will have a cascade of unintended consequences. In the best case, they will run the project over term and way over budget. In the worst, they may make it better, in retrospect, to have junked the work so far and have started over from scratch.
4. “No” is not a design parameter.
When you build a website, you are literally drawing on a blank page. You are an artist as well as a business person or government official. There is nothing
you cannot do, from Google’s ultra-clean single-field home page, introducing an extraordinary collection of services and products, to Facebook’s cluttered, chaotic and disorganized mess.
Don’t ever let a lawyer or programmer tell you what you can or cannot do on your website. There are laws and legal constraints, to be sure. But how you present them, and how you let them affect your community, are up to you. If your lawyer doesn’t understand this and has insufficient flexibility and creativity to help make it happen, get another lawyer.
As for software, there is another dirty little secret. Modern computers, servers and software are incredibly flexible. They are designed from the ground up to be flexible and versatile. (If your hardware or operating system isn’t so designed, swap it out, the sooner the better.)
So you can do almost anything you want with a website, unless it involves creating new principles of physics, chemistry, engineering or mathematics. Most websites don’t.
That’s why Google, Facebook and Twitter were started by youngsters. They were young enough to understand that technology imposes no limitation on websites. Only your imagination does.
The message here is simple. If your programmer or software supplier tells you “no” too often, get another programmer or software supplier. And be as sensitive as you can to attitude from the hiring interview forward. A “can do” programmer or supplier can give a website eternal life. A looking-for-problems attitude can be the kiss of death, and often is.
5. Legacy systems pose special problems.
Large organizations like government and big business often have so-called “legacy” systems. These are big, existing software and hardware systems already in place before website design begins. If the website has to interface with them and use and/or change their data, they require special consideration. This is the one big exception to the rule against design “nos.”
Most big organizations have legacy systems. Many have old, outdated and cantankerous hardware and software which are too big, expensive or difficult to replace quickly. Interfacing with them and using or changing their data creates whole new layers of complexity, which lawyers and programmers can cite to justify their design “nos.”
In the case of healthcare.gov, interfacing with these legacy systems was a large part of the problem. When you have a system as big and expensive as those that manage Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, you can’t change them overnight. Legal and political constraints, not to mention budget limitations, might not permit changing them at all.
In that case, you have a choice. You can interface with the legacy systems, or you can develop new supplementary or replacement systems from scratch. Sometimes the latter option is simpler and cheaper.
Let’s take a quick example. Apparently, healthcare.gov had to have certain personal information about seekers of health insurance in order to provide accurate premium quotes. That makes sense.
But other things don’t. For example, why did the system have to try to verify some or all of that information, through the government’s cumbersome legacy systems, before even posting a quote? Couldn’t it just give an internally figured quote, derived from healthcare.gov’s own systems, with a big, red disclaimer that all data are subject to verification and that the premium might change accordingly? And wouldn’t it be easier, simpler and cheaper for insurers and healthcare.gov’s own programmers to build and work with their own databases and verify legally necessary items later?
Databases are easy to copy in whole, and computer storage is incredibly cheap, at least compared to systems programming. How about copying the necessary databases, in whole, from the legacy systems once a week, or even once a day, so that healthcare.gov’s programmers and designers could have freer hands? Actual insurance enrollment—presumably at a much lower level of demand than mere window shopping—could be verified case by case later, in accordance with the big, red disclaimer.
Our President is a very, very bright man. I’m not so familiar with Secretary Sebelius, but I have no reason to think that she is not a bright woman. If either had spent an hour thinking about these points, he or she would have come to the right conclusion. The mess that resulted is strong evidence that neither did.
A decision to rely on or to supplement and eventually replace cumbersome legacy systems is one of those make-or-break decisions that must be made right at the outset. Only high executives imbued with the goal and vision of the community can get it right. Now that so much programming and interfacing has been built around legacy systems, they may be very difficult and expensive to change, at least for healthcare.gov.
6. Users are the only proper testers and judges of websites.
We humans have had electronic communications for just over a century. They all started with radio, which allowed a single person to broadcast to millions.
The Internet’s major contribution was not digitization. That
just made copying easier, cheaper and more accurate (with big implications for copyright). The Internet’s really
big advance was that it not only let the millions talk back; it also let them talk to each other.
Every news medium or commercial site with product reviews, comments or feedback lets millions talk back. But only recently have social media—and commercial sites with comments to reviews or news sites with replies to comments—allowed millions to talk to each other. This is where the Internet’s vast still-untapped promise lies.
Even the wisest of us has trouble grasping the full implications of this change. We are just infants in organizing and rationalizing, let alone streamlining, many-to-many communication. Much—if not most—of the enormous potential of this single change still lies obscured in the mists of (future) time. Instantaneous traffic reports and real-time epidemiology as cold or flus spread give us a tiny notion of what may lie ahead.
But one implication is obvious, or should be. The users of websites are no longer a passive audience, as readers of newspapers or books once were. They are part of a community
of interactive participants. And they must have a say in how a website works, or they will leave it. In the twenty-first century, when virtually every country but North Korea has no serious restrictions on emigration, the same principle applies to websites as to nations: if people don’t like the community you manage, they will go elsewhere. And they will take their brains and skill, or their patronage, with them.
The upshot is that users—preferably in their millions—are not just the best
testers of websites, but the only really useful ones. Of course the website provider has at least to verify, while the website is still off line, that the software and hardware have no obvious bugs. But that’s the easy part. Nerds call it the “alpha test.”
test occurs when the community the website is supposed to serve gets invited in to visit, try, use, attempt to break, and even to hack the website. If that doesn’t happen before
the website goes live, it happens afterward. Almost invariably, belated testing by users produces a debacle like healthcare.gov’s debut.
In the “old days” (just a few years ago), software vendors sent out trial disks to selected users and asked them to test the software. This they called a “beta” test. The good vendors spent months or even more than a year (a lifetime in software development) analyzing the users’ reports and suggestions, modifying the software accordingly, and then testing it further.
The Internet now gives website builders new opportunities and a new problem. No longer need they send out discs or select users. They can let users select themselves by putting a “feedback” button on their home pages (or any page). (This is what users do in posting product reviews on Amazon.com.) The problem is that there is a much greater volume of suggestions and complaints to cull, and a hacker might be successful and impose additional expense.
Smart website builders know that these opportunities far outweigh the problem. Some even make user feedback a continuous process. Among them is Google, which has a “feedback” button on some, but not all, of its pages, every day. For Google, beta testing is now a continuous process, like today’s post-marketing “surveillance” of side effects from FDA-approved drugs.
Not beta testing long before product release was one of healthcare.gov’s key errors. Even mere window-shoppers would have discovered the problems now providing fodder for Jon Stewart and other late-night comics. They would have seen them in the first week, if not the first day, of beta testing.
There are reports that neglect or curtailment of beta testing was politically driven. The law has deadlines written in stone, the most important of which is the December 15 deadline for signing up for coverage on January 1. And the reports say that the President and his political advisers blanched at beta testing before last year’s presidential elections, which would have allowed healthcare.gov to become a political pawn in the presidential campaign.
But it’s hard to believe this political delay could have been the cause of the debacle. After all, it’s now almost a year later. A few months of beta testing may not have cured all
problems, but surely it would have at least revealed the worst.
The President’s political judgment has been so consistently better than mine that I no longer seriously question his. But would postponing the online debut of healthcare.gov from October 1 to November 1 have caused enough political havoc to outweigh an extra month of beta testing and improvement? I have a hunch that the President, if he could run the film again, would not only authorize, but direct, the month’s delay for testing, had he known of the problems now revealed.
I write this post not to disparage the President or his style of governing. As readers of this blog know, I am a strong supporter of his. I remain so.
But like Betty Ford’s and Angelina Jolie’s breast cancers, the healthcare.gov debacle is a teachable moment. It highlights larger lessons having nothing to do with the relative merits of government and business or contending political ideologies. It shows how far, in general, we are from understanding, let alone realizing, the Internet’s potential in building communities, let alone how to use it most effectively for that purpose.
There are far too many websites like healthcare.gov or facebook.com, and far too few like Google’s, Amazon’s, and the CDC’s. The reason, in my view, is that what websites really
are hasn’t yet dawned on most of us, especially our high executives. Far too many, in business and government, still think of websites as organizational plumbing, to be delegated to specialists called “nerds,” budgeted and then ignored.
There are business-school grads who think they can manage anything with a knowledge of spreadsheets and some indefinable personal quality called “leadership.” These we have in abundance today.
Then there are those like Jeff Bezos, Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, and Larry Page. They have enough knowledge of technology to know what it can do, and enough humility about themselves and the warp speed of daily progress and competition to seek to know what users want.
These men build whole new industries. In the process, they justify the kind of confidence that creates the astronomical price-earnings multiples cited in my introduction to this post.
How do they do it? In two ways. First, they work hands on. None of them would ever think
of delegating a project as important as healhcare.gov to nerds or contractors, let alone lawyers. Second, they are humble enough (even Jobs was!) to think about users and occasionally ask them what they want. Sometimes, they even let users test their products before release.
None of these leaders would sit in his office playing with spreadsheets, while delegating most of the process of developing anything important. Somehow, they manage to stay “hands on” in a society in which knowledge, expertise and concomitant specialization are increasing exponentially. That isn’t easy.
Leaders like these men are not only going to clean to clocks of their less savvy competitors. They are going to build our collective future, in government and politics, as well as business. That’s why I still believe that Jeff Bezos’ personal purchase of The Washington Post
is a signal event
of our times.
: Earlier versions of this post misspelled HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius’ last name, confusing her with the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius. Although I don’t usually point out my typos, misspelling a person’s name is an embarrassing error, especially for a retired lawyer and law professor. It’s especially embarrassing in the context of this post, as a thirty-second Google search could (and did) reveal the correct spelling. Websites expand our horizons, but they also limit our excuses. I apologize.
P.S. Why I’m Not Slavering over Twitter’s IPO
With Twitter’s IPO coming up next week, some readers might wonder what I think about it.
I won’t be participating. Why? For me, all you can fit into 140 characters, with no context whatsoever, is a wisecrack or an announcement. A written belch that short doesn’t even rise to the level of a thought.
Throwing billions of wisecracks out into cyberspace at random is not, in my view, an effective way of organizing the Internet’s vast potential for creating and sustaining many-to-many communities. I’m not sure what is. If I were, I might be rich. But Amazon’s multiple communities of users of various products, interacting through their reviews and comments, seems much more like what may eventually emerge. Those
communities seem infinitely more solid and durable than anything that Twitter might create.
With billions of wisecracks floating around in cyberspace, what gets most of the attention? The announcements, of course. But announcements only get traction if they come from prominent people—politicians, business leaders, and celebrities. (Twitter might be a good way to organize “spontaneous” demonstrations, even under the watchful eyes and ears of censors. That’s why China and Russia, among others, might try to control it.)
In promulgating announcements, Twitter turns out to be just another broadcast medium for the famous and powerful, much like radio or network TV. So it’s really just another one-to-many medium. I don’t think it comes close to realizing the Internet’s potential for many-to-many community building.
But don’t listen to me for investment advice. Although relatively successful (especially in ducking the Crash of 2008), I tend to be overly cautious. I missed the big early rises on Google, Amazon and even Tesla, although I now admire all three firms, use the first two regularly, and may buy or lease a Tesla soon.
Twitter’s IPO may give a bounce to short-term investors. As the old joke goes, you don’t have to beat the bear, just the other investors he’s trying to eat. But I don’t expect Twitter to be a prominent company in a mere twenty years. In contrast, I’d be surprised if Google or Amazon wasn’t.
Anyway, I’m not sorry I never invested in Facebook. I plan to join Google Plus as soon as I have the time to assimilate it. Eventually, excellence in programming, website design and responsiveness to users should win the day, despite Facebook’s long head start.
Coda: An Exemplary Many-to-Many Online Community
Amazon.com’s product reviews are not just a cute website feature or a recipe for Internet success. They are, in my view, the best present example of the many-to-many online communities that the Internet portends, if
we use it well and exploit its full potential.
All communities begin with a goal and a vision. In Amazon.com’s case, the goal was better informed and therefore happier customers. The vision was letting past purchasers inform both serious shoppers and window shoppers about products they are considering buying.
That was (and is) the essence of Amazon.com’s online product reviews, nearly all by volunteers. But there is much more to Jeff Bezos’ vision than that.
The most important element was allowing negative
reviews. This advance appeared to run against the mainstream
of advertising and product promotion since the days of caveat emptor
in ancient Rome. Yet it built the foundation and set the moral tone for Amazon.com’s online communities: fair, honest and useful reviews.
This simple change alone was world-shaking. But there was more, much more. Amazon allows anyone to comment on posted reviews. That
step deepened the many-to-many interactive experience, exploiting the Internet’s full potential.
As a result, you often find multiple and even extensive comments to the first (or best, or most thorough) online review of a particular product. Sometimes you can learn all you need to know to make an informed purchasing decision simply by reading that exemplary review and accompanying comments.
The next advance was more recent. Amazon now allows its site’s users to interact with reviewers by posing them questions, which appear in the reviewer’s e-mail inbox. So if you have a burning question about a product you are considering buying, you can pick the author of the most helpful online review and ask him or her directly. That’s the sort of many-to-many interaction that radio, television and even cable simply cannot offer.
These revolutionary website features have had an extraordinary consequence. They have built an online community that has developed its own moral code. Amazon does not impose this code from the top. It doesn’t have to, although its software does try to limit reviews to people who have actually purchased the product under review. Intead, the moral code developed organically, as in any true community.
And a beautiful moral code it is. Already, it has has two distinct elements, which half a day’s (or less) perusal on line will reveal.
The first and most important element is fairness and relevance. Online comments regularly discourage negative reviews by people who: (1) haven’t actually purchased the product, (2) complain about product irrelevancies like poor delivery service, (3) base poor ratings on, or fail to acknowledge, obvious idiosyncracies of their own uses or needs, or (4) base poor reviews on obvious failures to understand the product or read the supplier’s product descriptions.
The enforcement mechanism is simple but effective: social pressure. Mild violations evoke gentle remonstrance from commenters. More severe and repeated violations evoke sarcasm, flaming, shaming and blaming, including charges of working as a “troll” for competitors. This online community polices itself!
But policing is only half the story. The other half is selflessness. I have read numerous reviews that self-evidently took hours, maybe days, to prepare and write. I myself have spent an hour or two on reviews that I submit. All this work is free, gratis, an effort to help one’s fellow human beings.
Sometimes, people with special expertise go out of their way to write extraordinarily useful reviews. One review I read, on rechargeable batteries, involved extensive electrical testing, including tests on discharge characteristics, which take a lot of time. Although written for ordinary users, it had all the substance of a professional paper in an engineering journal. And the author cast all this work on the clear waters of the Internet for free, expecting nothing more than thanks, which he got in abundance.
Amazon.com’s website design encourages selflessness like this. If an e-mail question from a reader of your review appears in your e-mail in box, and you know the answer and consider it helpful, how can you not respond? This simple technical feature—allowing anyone to question voluntary product reviewers—brings out the best in us. It is just one small example of the type of quintessentially human
progress that the Internet’s many-to-many interaction portends.
As a lifelong nerd with a Ph.D. in physics, I have no trouble reading technical specifications. I often peruse them before buying products. But with a little patience, Amazon’s product reviews, although written by mere volunteers, often provide better and more relevant information. They tell me things that any actual user of the product would want to know. Some provide information that can only come from extensive use, such as reports of product durability and longevity.
The reason Amazon.com is a world-shaking corporation is not just that it delivers good products conveniently and on time, with a generous satisfaction guarantee. It also has forged its customers into a series of transient communities—one for each product or type of product.
And these online communities, like those in the brick-and-mortar world, have developed their own moral code. That code motivates their “netizens” to become their brothers’ keepers, as the Bible suggests. When you consider that all this goodness comes from a mere enlightened attempt to sell commercial products, it’s enough to make you think that maybe our species has a future.